When That Neighborhood Free Health Clinic opened on a frigid day this past January, one of the first patients who came through the door was not wearing socks. Though he was there seeking treatment for other ailments, the medical staff was more concerned with the potential damage his severe frostbite might cause.
The man was not wearing socks because he did not own any socks. He would come to symbolize for the clinic’s volunteers how destitute many North Toledo residents are, and how desperately they need access to basic health care.
This is why That Neighborhood Free Health Clinic exists. The clinic operates from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the YMCA of Greater Toledo on Bush Street at North Summit. And it is just as the name suggests — it’s free.
Medical professionals donate their time and services to give uninsured and underinsured residents quality health care at no cost. Because let’s face it, there are many folks who are falling through the gaps of the Affordable Care Act, such as those who find the coverage deductible or office visit copays unaffordable.
When I found out about the clinic and the generosity of those involved, I felt compelled to tell the story. It’s a quiet, yet powerful movement that I’m busting wide open. The organizers aren’t necessarily looking for publicity, but I enjoy writing about good people doing good things.
I visited the clinic recently, and I was nearly moved to tears. Paul Chandler, the clinic’s director, actually did cry as he told me how important it is to help fulfill such a basic need for people who are so impoverished. Those living in North Toledo are among the poorest in nation, he explained.
“These are people who really have a need — the need is here,” said Mr. Chandler, 61, who also works full time as a physician’s assistant in gynecology at ProMedica’s Toledo Hospital. “These are the people who expect the leftovers, who expect to be shoved in a corner because they are poor.”
The average annual income per household in the neighborhood is $11,139. That is well below the poverty threshold for one individual, and we’re talking about supporting entire families here. The estimated unemployment rate is 11 percent, though many have stopped looking for work long ago.
I talked with people in the neighborhood who have been out of work, down on their luck, and flat out sick. They felt they had nowhere to turn for health care and often suffered in silence. That changed in January, when the clinic opened. The health center is an off shoot of That Neighborhood Church, a community religious organization that provides needy North Toledo residents with hot meals, groceries, clothing, and is developing a vocational center that will offer life-skill lessons and job-training classes that cover everything from computer literacy to car maintenance and repair.
Announcements about the clinic are made after church services, flyers are hung around the neighborhood, and church volunteers go door to door to tell residents about the health services. Though the clinic is open to anyone who can get there, the target clientele are residents from the neighborhood. The clinic started slowly, but now eight to 10 patients are seen during office hours every Tuesday and Thursday.
Chrissy Foxhuber, 32, has been utilizing the health clinic since it opened. Ms. Foxhuber, a single mother, has Ohio Medicaid coverage, but no car to drive to most medical appointments. She catches rides when her daughters — Sommer, 9 and Madison, 6 — are sick, but relies on the clinic for her care.
“It’s in walking distance, and I feel more comfortable with the people here,” she said. “It’s a home feeling here, like it’s a big family. They are helping a lot of people.”
Still, patients with the inability to pay were apprehensive at first. There was inherent distrust; they were certain a bill would show up in the mail at some point. But need trumps suspicion, especially for those who come through the door with blood pressure so high that it is near stroke levels. Mr. Chandler said hypertension goes untreated for more than 80 percent of those in the neighborhood living with the disease. They know they’re not feeling well, but they don’t know why.
Nurse practitioner student Linda Joyce and Dr. Bonaventure Okoro consult with a patient at That Neighborhood Free Health Clinic in North Toledo.
These folks are treated with dignity, just as they would be at any formal medical facility. Their records are kept electronically. A nurse gathers their medical history, vital statistics, and the reason they are seeking treatment. After they are seen by a doctor, the staff follows up with them to ensure they have experienced no adverse reactions from a new medication, or even more basic, to ensure that they were able to afford the medication.
Kenneth Haendel, 54, is recovering from a heart attack he had last August. From 2007 to 2010, before the ticker troubles, he had been living off and on at the Cherry Street Mission and in the woods after losing his job as a security guard. Mr. Haendel can’t get approved for Social Security, he says, because he told a case worker that he still does some work around the house and tries to help his buddy by doing the grocery shopping. Therefore, he’s not disabled enough, he said.
He now lives with a friend a few blocks from the clinic, and comes in regularly to monitor his high blood pressure and treat a compressed disk in his back. His roommate receives Social Security benefits, so he is able to pay their rent. Mr. Haendel receives food stamps, so he buys the food. That’s the survival arrangement they’ve concocted: partners in poverty.
“I still get a little chest pain here and there,” Mr. Haendel told me. “They’re helping me here. We’re changing around my meds a bit to see if we can control the blood pressure and shortness of breath. So far, so good. It’s nice to be able to walk to a doctor that seems to want to help me live.”
This clinic would not exist without the generosity of those who donated their time, energy, and money to get it off the ground.
Glenn Carlson, a retired Toledo orthopedic surgeon, worked on the proposal for two and a half years before the doors opened. With $20,000 in seed money from That Neighborhood Foundation, organizers found carpenters and plumbers who donated their labor to reconfigure some of the YMCA offices into a medical clinic.
ProMedica donated about $50,000 worth of medical equipment, such as exam tables and lights. Cabinetry was donated by The Andersons, and individual donations paid for the computers. Even those who are financially struggling themselves find a way to slip the clinic $20 here or $50 there. But fund-raising needs to be ramped up to secure the estimated $50,000 it will take to run the clinic for a full year.
“It’s not something I do naturally, to say we need money,” Mr. Chandler said of his fund-raising efforts. “It’s a faith-based clinic, and God has been good. He’s supplied us with money when we needed it. Sometimes it’s month to month, but we make it.”
The goal is for the clinic to expand its operation to five days a week. The neighborhood need is certainly there. But more volunteers — doctors, physician assistants, nurses — also must step up to help manage the patient load.
Money helps. Time helps. Ideas help. Compassion helps. What can you spare? To donate, visit the clinic’s Web site at: www.thatneighborhoodfoundation.org/that-neighborhood-free-health-clinic/give-hope-at-the-clinic/
Suzette Hackney is an editorial writer and columnist for The Blade.
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